“Who’s going to die?” asks Will Byers (Noah Schapp) in the penultimate episode of season four of Stranger Things (Netflix). Well, Will, ain’t that just the question. It felt near inconceivable that as we entered the – very, very long – final stretch of this latest triumphant series that all of our retro heroes would survive, as they variously went up against Soviet Demigorgons, scowling government spooks and the malicious human kebab that is Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower).
You have other questions too. Are these two episodes worth the gargantuan running time (nearly four hours)? Is the showdown between Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Vecna worth it? Does the subplot involving Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) in Kamchatka eventually relate to anything that’s going on in the US? Well: almost; absolutely; not really.
Mainly, however, you want to know who dies – who’ll be around for next year’s final season. There’ll be no spoilers here, but suffice to say that the Duffer Bros have pulled off an audacious and, yes, emotional finale that takes an awful long time to get where it needs to go.
Episode eight, titled Papa, is essentially 85 minutes of ducks being lined up in a row, while the first hour of the 150-minute finale, The Piggyback, is reminiscent of A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms – the Game of Thrones episode in the final season in which people sat about a castle and nattered, hours before a seismic battle. Some believe that episode to be genius, others (ahem) thought it indulgent waffle.
Be patient though – this excellent, return-to-form series has earned that – and it delivers a final 90 minutes of fist-pumping, nail-biting, Eighties-o-rama action that both honours and deepens the Stranger Things lore. Boy, do the Duffer Bros know what the fans want: Hopper in a Hulk Hogan t-shirt striding around a Soviet prison with a flamethrower; the wonderful Dungeons & Dragons dropout Eddie Munson (British actor Joseph Quinn, with an Emmy written all over him) thrashing out Metallica’s Master of Puppets to an audience of hellish bat-fiends in the Upside Down; the young pups haring off down the road in a stolen Winnebago to the strains of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Up Around the Bend; heartwarming visual references to Rambo, Highlander, Ghostbusters, The Lost Boys.
Given that the stakes are extremely high – without giving anything away, Vecna is ambitious – the episodes get a little heavy, but are always pulled back from the brink by some Duffer Bros wit. A particular delight this season has been Eduardo Franco’s California stoner Argyle – witness the moment he meets his Nevada doppelganger or when he introduces the gang to pineapple on pizza – and, last season’s canniest addition, Maya Hawke’s adorable clutz, Robin. The latter gets the plum lines when discussing the malevolent Vecna: “Vecna. Henry. One. What are we calling him now?” Hah. Indeed.
With an enormous ensemble cast, perhaps the Duffers felt they needed four hours to give everyone their due, which they almost do to perfection. Steve (Joe Keery) and Nancy’s (Natalia Dyer) rekindled warmth glows nicely, while the bond between Eddie and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is impeccable. A little too long is spent on the angst between Max (Sadie Sink) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), though even that pays off in the end.
One duff(er) note is the strenuous effort to make us care about the romance between Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven, though that is overshadowed by an unexpectedly brilliant handling of poor Will’s situation – since he was swept away to the Upside Down in season one, he was been the outcast, the oddball, the one who could never quite fit in. All through this series he has felt like a spare part. This story, you are gently reminded here, is his. It always has been.
A month ago, few of us thought we’d be hungrily bingeing a series of Stranger Things again, its race felt all but run, its brand tarnished by effortful, cash-in live events and endless merchandise. Yet here we are, it’s 2016 all over again – or, should I say, 1986 all over again – and we’re racing down the road on our BMXs, Kate Bush on our Walkmans, off to save the day. We’ll miss Hawkins, Indiana, when it’s gone.